Saturday, October 18, 2008

Not the same old song: Levi Stubbs (1936-2008)

A bad year for the sound of music just got worse. First we said goodbye to Bo Diddley, then Isaac Hayes, then Norman Whitfield. Then on Friday we lost Levi Stubbs, leader of the Four Tops, the Voice of Motown, the baritone whose urgent vocal passion launched a thousand thousand love affairs.

Stubbs, ill for years with cancer and the effects of a stroke, stole home in his sleep on Friday, at his home in Detroit, at the age of 72.

◊ ◊ ◊

You know those songs in your sleep. “Baby I Need Your Loving,” “Walk Away Renee,” “Bernadette.” "I Can't Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey Bunch)," “Same Old Song.” “Reach Out I'll Be There.” “Standing in the Shadows of Love.” “There Ain't No Woman (Like the One I Got).” These and more besides, all powered by that unmistakable take-charge baritone, a voice Stubbs himself once described for the Los Angeles Times as “rather loud and raw,” but a voice without which Motown wouldn’t, couldn’t be the motive cultural force it was for 20 years.

The Four Tops, which began in the 1950s in Detroit as the Four Aims, consisted of Stubbs, Abdul (Duke) Fakir, Lawrence Payton and Renaldo (Obie) Benson — and it stayed that way for decades. In an era when bands changed members at the slightest sign of friction or difficulty, the original lineup didn’t change for more than 40 years, a record of longevity and tolerance. Recording at least 32 albums for seven different labels, selling at least 50 million copies, the Tops had staying power.

Gary Susman of Entertainment Weekly grasped the tree-ring sense of the group’s endurance: “Unlike many of the label's own hand-groomed and manufactured bands, the quartet was around long before Motown started, and its original lineup continued decades after most Motown bands had become tribute acts filled with ringers.”

As the group that helped establish the power of the Holland-Dozier-Holland songwriting team, the Four Tops were effectively American ambassadors to the world.

The Berry Gordy finishing-school approach to stagecraft was part of what gave the Tops their panache. Karen Grigsby Bates, writing on the NPR Web site, observed: “In an era when broken-down bell bottoms, scruffy hair and Army-Navy surplus coats were de rigueur, the Tops were always elegant onstage, whether they were in tuxedos or silk Nehru jackets and medallions.”

But Stubbs’ voice was the signature of their signature sound. With a voice that always seemed on the edge of despair, a curious blend of strength and weakness, Stubbs became the frontman for the group that, with only the Temptations and the Supremes as competition, defined soul music for millions around the planet.

Break out your cassettes or start up your iPod. Listen to “Baby I Need Your Loving.” Revel in the chorus, the way Stubbs made time stop for that fraction of a second that seemed to go on forever.

“Baby I need your loving … Got! to have all your loving.”

Play "Bernadette": Hear Stubbs again, in a performance that wedded menace and loneliness — the way his voice emerges from a silence to cry a woman's name like a man at the end of his rope.

Stubbs, who was known as "the Captain," had been in declining health for years after a cancer diagnosis and a series of strokes in 2000. By then Payton had died (1997); Benson would follow in 2005. With Stubbs' passing, only Duke Fakir remains of the original Four Tops lineup.

But what a career. Peep the videos scattered throughout here. Remember the voice that personified emotional honesty, joy and heartbreak so naked and plain you almost can't stand it. Remember Levi Stubbs.

It's not the same old song anymore. It'll never be the same old song again.
Image credits: Levi Stubbs: UPI/Bill Greenblatt. Four Tops album cover: © 1967 Motown Records. Four Tops 1990: Associated Press file.


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